When it comes to the NCAA handing out major penalties, mercy isn't really at the forefront of anyone's mind. That's just not something the NCAA deals in, and for the most part everybody is fine with that and understands it. So when Penn State's punishment was handed down from on high on Monday morning, there were lots of expressions of amazement, but few contending that what the NCAA did was out of line.
Where lots of Penn State partisans—especially former football players—drew the line, however, was one specific punishment. Not the loss of scholarships, not the financial penalties, not even the postseason ban. No, what the former Nittany Lions took the most offense to, and rightfully so, was the NCAA vacating 111 wins from Paterno's career, knocking him down to 298—and far from the top spot in NCAA Division I history that he used to occupy.
Here's a sampling of some Penn State reactions:
It saddens me that I will never be able to show my son the accomplishments my team and I made while we were at #pennstate— Derrick Williams (@DWheelz15) July 23, 2012
NCAA says games didn't exist..I got the metal plate in my neck to prove it did..I almost died playing 4 PSU..punishment or healing?!? #WeAre— Adam Taliaferro (@Tali43) July 23, 2012
Now, it's not the NCAA's job to keep these men happy with Penn State's punishment by any stretch. But it should take note that the exceptions being taken here are pretty specific and largely limited to the punishment that's, oh, roughly the fifth-worst thing the NCAA did to Penn State. And that's because they're right: The NCAA shouldn't have vacated those wins.
We understand why the NCAA punished Penn State like this. It doesn't want Joe Paterno's name atop the list of all-time coaching wins forever—and let's be clear, nobody was ever going to challenge that record. Not in college football as we know it.
Should the NCAA have vacated wins against Penn State?
But for the myriad faults people justifiably find with Joe Paterno and Penn State, one complaint that has never been lodged is that those wins weren't earned. The NCAA vacates wins for teams operating at a competitive advantage, like using ineligible or illegally recruited players. It doesn't do it if the coach is enough of a scumbag.
Or at least it didn't until now.
One of the most appealing things about sport as we know it is that has a scoreboard and a record book. And at the end of the day, it's what's on the scoreboard that counts. It's what's in the record books that matters. Titles, honors, statues: These are all given to people by other people, and they can be taken away. That's fine.
But even though Art Schlichter threw away his life to gambling and Woody Hayes punched an opposing player right there on the sideline later that very year, we know that, for example, Ohio State beat Michigan, 18-15, on Nov. 17, 1979, with those two men prominently involved. We know that because it's in the record book, forever, and it's not going anywhere.
The record book doesn't judge. It doesn't waver because Schlichter's been to prison over and over or because a president played at Michigan in the '20s. It doesn't change scores on the whims of men who come later. The score is the score; the game is the game. What happened is what happened, and everyone who was there that day knows it.
So to take entirely legal wins away—not only from the since-deceased man who coached them but from the players that played them—all because it's time to crush Penn State, basically goes against the very fundamentals of sport as we know them.
Penn State can't and won't appeal the NCAA's ruling. Fine. Rolling over on it is essentially the only way the program is saving itself from the death penalty. But the Penn State players know—and so should you—that the NCAA did them wrong by taking away those 111 wins and turning its records over the whims of judgment and punishment. That's not sporting. That's not sport. That's a shame.